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    Elite Div: Depleted Mumbai face Punjab

    Mumbai: A depleted Mumbai outfit sans key batsmen Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Abhishek Nayar, and front-line pacers Zaheer Khan and Dhawal Kulkarni, will take on Punjab in their last Ranji Trophy Elite Division Group A match from Wednesday.

    Although without their regular players with Rahane, Rohit and Zaheer in Australia with the national team, Nayar out with injury and Kulkarni resting, Mumbai are facing no anxiety as they have already booked their quarter-final spot in the tournament.

    The visitors, on the other hand, are in a spot of bother to book the last available berth from the group. Group leaders Karnataka (21 points), followed by Mumbai (20 points) are already in the last-eight stage.

    Meanwhile, Punjab who are also without their key players - Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh - have to put their best foot forward at the Wankhede Stadium to score an outright victory over Mumbai. But picking up five points against even a depleted Mumbai at their backyard is not going to be easy for the Uday Kaul-led Punjab, who currently have 15 points and are lying at third position in the group table.

    Six teams - three each from the two Elite divisions - and the two finalists from the Plate group, would qualify for the quarter-finals.

    If Punjab fail in their bid for an outright victory, they can still make it, but it will depend on the other results in the group in which Railways (13), Saurashtra (11) and last year's champions Rajasthan (10) are still in with a chance to make it to the last eight.

    Punjab's bowling has been bolstered by the availability of lanky, unorthodox leg-break bowler Rahul Sharma whose confidence must be quite high after a good outing in his debut ODI against West Indies in Indore where he took three wickets in his first three overs and in the previous game against Karnataka, in which he finished with four wickets.

    Punjab's top three batsmen this season have been Mayank Sidhana (545 runs from six games), Mandeep Singh (458 from five) and Amitoze Singh (369 from four). Even skipper Kaul (378 from five) and Karan Goel (463 from six) haven't done too badly.

    Opener Sarul Kanwar's return to form with an innings of 89 in their previous game against table-toppers Karnataka is also a welcome sign for the visitors, who would face a decent new-ball attack from Mumbai in the form of Avishkar Salvi, Murtuza Hussain and Kshemal Waingankar.

    Mumbai, too, would be happy with skipper Wasim Jaffer's form, who notched up a ton in the game against Saurashtra and a half-century in the previous tie against UP, in the middle order, and is 50 short of overhauling former team-mate and skipper Amol Muzumdar as the highest run-getter in the national championships.

    Recalled opener and stumper Sushant Marathe also scored a ton against UP, while his opening partner, the underperforming Kaustubh Pawar also notched up a fifty and that should be a welcome sign for the hosts.

    But the absence of Nayar, who has scored 582 runs in five matches at an average of 116 and is just behind the other main contributor with the bat, Suryakumar Yadav (593 runs in six games), is a major blow for Mumbai.

    With Rohit, also averaging over 100, too absent from the ranks, the 39-time champions would depend heavily on Jaffer's experience and Yadav's daredevilry in the middle-order to build up on the opening provided by Marathe and Pawar.

    In the bowling department, Salvi would be expected to do the early damage, though his form - six wickets from four games - is nothing much too boost about.

    Hussain and Waingankar have grabbed only two and one wicket, respectively, and this would be a big worry for the hosts.

    Spin is Mumbai's trump card with off-spinner Ramesh Powar having grabbed 22 wickets after an indifferent beginning to his season and left-armer Iqbal Abdullah chipping in with 13 wickets. But overall, the hosts' attack looks a bit weak and if Punjab batsmen apply themselves well, they can take advantage of it.

    The visitors' bowling attack also looks thin as they would miss Manpreet Gony, their most successful bowler with 20 wickets, including a five-for against Railways. In Gony's absence Harmeet Singh will lead the pace attack.

    Rajasthan looking for big victory against Orissa

    At the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur, defending champions Rajasthan will look to register a big victory when they take on Orissa. The clash between the lowly-placed teams in Group A has gained a new dimension after Rajasthan scored a huge victory over Saurashtra last week.

    If Rajasthan, who are languishing at second last place in the Group A table with only 10 points from six matches, are able to record an outright victory with a bonus point over Orissa they may enter the knock-out stage. However, it will still depend on the results of the other matches in the group.

    "We have no other choice but to go all out and earn a big victory with a bonus point. That might help us. But despite that, we will have to wait and watch the results of the remaining matches," admitted Rajasthan skipper Hrishikesh Kanitkar.

    Rajasthan, who raised their level of performance in the last match against Saurashtra, would need to come up with the same kind of show. But they can take heart from the fact that Orissa are a weak opponent and are lying at the bottom of the table with two points from six matches.

    Rajasthan, meanwhile, have been pegged back a little, as Deepak Chahar and former India Under-19 captain Ashok Menaria are out of the squad due to jaundice and groin injury, respectively. But skipper Kanitkar would not be too bothered by their absence as Chahar has not been in his prime form while Menaria did not play in the last match against Saurashtra. Chahar's replacement Rituraj Singh bowled well in tandem with Pankaj Singh and Sumit Mathur, who were impressive on a grassy wicket.

    The batting line-up of the hosts is also in pretty impressive form with the likes of Kanitkar, Vineet Saxena, Robin Bist, Akash Chopra, Puneet Yadav and Rashmi Ranjan Parida - all amongst runs.

    The visitors, on the other hand, have been far from impressive so far in the tournament. "We have to play positive. We have nothing to lose now, so we want to salvage some pride," said Debashish Mohanty, the former Indian medium-pacer and coach of the Orissa team.

    In Kartik's absence, Railways chase outright victory

    Railways would be desperately looking for an outright victory when they take on Saurashtra in their last Group A match at the Karnail Singh Stadium in New Delhi on Wednesday.

    Railways have 13 points from six matches and are placed at fourth position in the points table below Karnataka, Mumbai (both of whom have qualified for the quarter-finals) and Punjab (15 points). A victory here would enhance Railways' chances of advancing to the knock-out stage and they would also hope that Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (13 points) falter in their respective matches.

    Railways, however, have suffered a major blow ahead of their all-important game after veteran left-arm orthodox spinner Murali Kartik pulled out of the squad citing injury. And even though another left-armer Nilesh Chauhan from Rajkot has replaced Kartik, how much handy he would turn out to be on a spin-friendly wicket here is anybody's guess.

    Railways would have no choice but to depend on offspinner Arlen Konwar in Kartik's absence, although he has played only two games this season. Also in the content_cnion would be Nilesh Chauhan, who has played only a game (against Karnataka) this season, in which he went wicketless. The opener Shreyas Khanolkar, who also bowls offspinners, may come in handy for his side.

    As far as the batting is concerned, Railways would bank heavily on opener Shivakant Shukla and skipper Sanjay Bangar. They would also expect the likes of Khanolkar, Mahesh Rawat, Nitin Bille and Ashish Yadav to stand up and be counted in this crucial game.

    Saurashtra, on the other hand, would be low on confidence after their thrashing at the hands of defending champions Rajasthan in the last match. The visitors, who have a little chance of progressing to the next stage as they are sitting at lowly sixth spot in the table with 11 points from six matches, would be hoping to win with a bonus point, besides praying that other teams in the group lose their respective matches.

    The batting unit comprising of Chirag Pathak, BM Chauhan, Sagar Jogiyani, Cheteshwar Pujara, Jaidev Shah and Shitanshu Kotak though have failed to click as a unit so far in the tournament but have been among runs. And on Wednesday, they can only hope to come out and play as a team.

    The bowling department that consists of Siddharth Trivedi, Jaidev Unadkat and Sandip Maniar will also have to put their best foot forward.